Introduction and overview of the work of Bruce Adams by UB curator Sandra Q. Firmin

Introduction to catalogue for the exhibition

Bruce Adams, Half Life, 1980-2006


Bruce Adams thinks in series, and his relentless inquiries into the history of art and representation have led him to eschew a signature style in favor of multiple approaches. While at times Adams appears to make radical departures in his work—because the imagery, brushstrokes, and palettes from one group of paintings to the next are wildly diverse—his interest in how and what we look at is ever present. Adams’s oeuvre over the last quarter of a century (along with various departures and transitions) can be divided into nine distinct yet overlapping groupings: Technology, Archeology,Research and Development, Men at Work, Fish and Bicycles, Tattooed Women, Titles First, Paintings of Pictures of People with Paintings, and, most recently, Divine Beauty. A majority of these works, beginning with the paintings that deal explicitly with technology (1983–1985), envision a world evocative of not only post–World War II baby boomer optimism, but paranoia triggered by new technologies and the tensions of the Cold War. The societal unease that drove the pulp fiction and film noir of the 1940s and 1950s infuses these paintings, wherein detectives, dames, and upstanding citizens have migrated into the canvases of high art, rendering irrelevant hierarchal distinction between popular cultural genres and high art.


The technology paintings ape the look and feel of black-and-white television shows from the 1950s. The tableaux are like episodes of The Twilight Zone, but here we enter into the eerie sphere of middle-class affluence in which suburban housewives and their families robotically inhabit homes defined by icons of luxury and security such as the refrigerator and television. A silicon computer chip pervades these paintings—a promise for the future that in various contexts is depicted as a primitive motif, abstract painting, and futuristic emblem. As science fiction makes clear, technology breeds fear as well as comfort. A number of these paintings hint at the insatiable desire for Japanese electronics in first world countries during the 1980s, a marker of globalization that necessitated not only a cultural forgetting of World War II and the atomic bomb, but a temporary elision of xenophobia for the sake of international commerce.


Adams’s lifelong attraction to cultural artifacts and scrutinizing contemporary life through the lens of archeology—in which all objects are equally fascinating for what they can tell us about society—reach an apogee in a group of paintings on unstretched canvas that resemble rawhide and archeological fragments (1985–1986), which eventually led to his Research and Development series (1993–1995). Linked by four motifs that can also be detected in previous works (a pre-Columbian vase, vintage pinups, a classical nude sculpture, and computer chip), these paintings depict labor and leisure. Men at Work (1994–95) features Leave It to Beaver–style dads absorbed in scientific analysis, conservation, and model making. Pinup posters ornament the walls behind these men, putting on display the girlie magazines commonly hidden underneath parents’ beds in countless suburban homes, offering a tongue-in-cheek commentary on sexual repression in the American nuclear family.


In each of his series, Adams skillfully employs diverse painting techniques to question the validity of the modernist belief in the artist’s unique inner vision communicated through a recognizable look. In Research and Development 1–8 (1994), the pre-Columbian vase is repeated eight times with pastiches of René Magritte and Keith Haring, for instance, alongside academic exercises in facsimile.


Tattooed Women (1996–1998) brings us up to contemporary times and records the fashion trends—or, arguably, rituals—of our own era, with an anachronistic twist as Adams bases many of these compositions on art-historical postures such as the reclining odalisque. In stark contrast with the tight look of needlework on flesh, Adams’s loose brushwork depicts women who are variously adorned with tattoos and piercings. In the late 1990s, tattoos had not yet become the socially ubiquitous art form that they are today, and these women proudly wear their body art as a sign of their individuality as well as their initiation into different subcultures.


Concurrent to Tattooed Women, the Fish and Bicycle series is painted using similarly furious and muscular strokes and acrid colors that hint at the seedier, carnivalesque-side of American life. Taking the Australian journalist, Irina Dunn, at her word when she said “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” Adams presents a topsy-turvy world of men and women riding bicycles and hanging out with the fishes, espousing an in-your-face-feminism that embraces a variety of body types and partnerings that seethe alternative sexualities.


Adams began Titles First in 2001 after he stumbled across a set of index cards containing art-related notes. Reversing the process of creating a work and then titling it, Adams used these non sequiturs as the impetus for his paintings. In 2006, Adams surrounded the majority of the pieces in this series with boldly colored wooden frames inscribed with their titles, calling to mind old fashion sign paintings. True to their oblique narrative beginnings, many of these tableaux look as if they could be covers for pulp fiction novels full of intrigue, espionage, and sexual escapades.


For Paintings of Pictures of People with Paintings (2000–2005), Adams, again chameleon-like, switches his techniques and employs photorealism to document people looking at what are popularly considered masterworks of Western civilization. He has removed all traces of architecture, allowing people and paintings to coexist in white expanses, which, up close, call to mind Robert Ryman’s varied surfaces. For a generation comfortable with the moving image and whose exposure to art is often through reproductions, an encounter with an actual object is not one of romantic contemplation, as Adams makes clear, but rather of mediation, viewed through the lens of a camera or heard through an explain-all audio recording. As John Massier eloquently reminds us throughout his essay in this catalogue, in Adams’s work “a cultural object is a cultural object is a cultural object.” When looking at Adams’s work it is useful to don the hat of an Indiana Jones–style archeologist as we are propelled through adventure after adventure, encountering the mysterious objects and activities of the men and women of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


Sandra Q. Firmin

Curator, UB Art